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Opinion: Why giving cookies and cakes is my favorite part of Christmas

Up until last week, I had no Christmas tree in my house. The ancient shoeboxes holding decorations were still in the garage, no stockings hung on the fireplace. Gifts were still unwrapped. I take care of my mother, who will turn 89 two days after Christmas, and after some recent days with her in the hospital, I got COVID. I still have fatigue, headache and joint pain.

I didn’t lose my taste, though. Even without the decorations, two weeks ago I made 400 cookies, and a week ago I began making 42 cream sherry cakes that people ask me about every year. To me, baked goods, given to someone, are the best part of the holidays.

According to many people, we’re meant to have a hundred things done by early December, or some existential panic sets in. But what I remember from childhood had nothing to do with rushing. We decorated our tree with the first ornaments my mother bought when she arrived in America in the 1950s, thin glass bells and balls, red and green. We used tinsel for magic. And at the Formica counter, near the pink wall oven, my mother taught me to bake.

By the time I was 8, I could make all the varieties of cookies we arranged on plates for neighbors, teachers, the mailman and our relatives. Certain recipe cards came out only at Christmas: Russian tea cakes, brownie drops, Scotch shortbread with maraschino cherry centers, oatmeal with apricot filling.

Everyone’s favorite were the roll-out cookies made with cream cheese and orange zest, cut into camels, stars, bells, trees and angels. The frosting flavored with almond extract, red or green food coloring dropped in so carefully by my small fingers. My mother was exacting. The cookies had to be perfect. They sat on paper plates on the counter, treasure not to be touched.

But we five siblings made our own cookies with the ends of the dough, and we each got to choose one for ourselves that baking day.

A little more than a week ago, I made 100 squares of traditional shortbread, sprinkled with red and green sugar. I drove to Riverside Elks Lodge 643, and with four other women, assembled containers of homemade cookies and treats for homeless veterans. An hour later, I walked to the First United Methodist Church of Riverside, where our nativity play was presented on the lawn. Seven of us women stood behind long tables with hundreds of cookies for afterward. This is my tribe — women who bake from scratch, from recipes or memory, who assemble plates and visit and laugh with each other.

But the cream sherry cake — that is my singular and famous offering. My mother taught me to make it when I was 10. I believe she found the recipe in a cookbook of recipes by California First Ladies. I think this was Nancy Reagan’s entry. It’s the most 1970 thing you can imagine, with nothing natural except the eggs. I use California sherry from the Central Valley and the tops bake brown with a split of gold.

I make these loaves for all the people who help my family survive. My neighbor Nancy took care of me during COVID with caldo de res and cough drops. Louie, who for 20 years has trapped possums and raccoons and skunks when one needs to be relocated from my yard. Mark and Cathy, who do our taxes, even when we’re late and confused. The doctors and medical technicians who take good care of my mom, the UPS, Amazon and Fed Ex drivers who visit with me even when I don’t get packages, the letter carrier, the trash collectors, landscapers — cakes for all.

Every year, my three favorite holiday moments are about this cake. A few days before Christmas I hang out in a warehouse with Dave and Phil, decking out a 1950 red Farmall tractor with holiday lights. Dave and I ride it through the night streets, while I wave like a Riverside pageant queen past the Mission Inn. Phil will break into his warm cake with his fingers, and we’ll have a whiskey.

The next day, I will deliver four large cakes to Bob’s Auto where George and his brother, nephew and fellow mechanics always get the most — they take care of five vehicles for my family, no matter that my girls drive all the way from Oakland or Pasadena. After 20 years, George is like family.

I married the first man I ever made cream sherry cake for. Now my ex, he still gets a cake every year when our three daughters are here. We’re all together this year with husbands and partners, except J.P., off working in the oil fields of Texas, whose cake we mailed. Last year, my ex brought my favorite gift — a baby chain saw from the Rubidoux Drive-In swap meet. Yellow and black, the perfect size for me, the home baker, the woman who climbs into the old mulberry tree and drops long leafless branches while he sits on the porch, playing Earth, Wind and Fire on his phone, his foil-wrapped cake waiting to be opened.

My mother hasn’t gotten COVID — she’s indomitable, except for her severe memory loss. She doesn’t remember that her keys are on her arm, but she said to me as I assembled the baking ingredients: “Did you put almond flavoring in the frosting? Did you get the orange from your tree for the zest? Did you put enough nutmeg in the cake?” She remembers that Formica kitchen counter, and so do I.

Susan Straight’s latest books are “Mecca” and “In the Country of Women.” She lives in Riverside.

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